Dennis Lehane is the King of crime fiction. There are other authors in the genre that are more prolific–James Patterson comes out with a book annually like clock work. Some are house hold names–John Grisham can tout that both Sam Jackson and Denzel Washington have played his characters on the big screen. Connolly has the Harry Bosch series–probably the best crime series going. But none in the genre are better than Lehane. I read Mystic River years ago and it still stands up as the greatest crime novel written. The movie doesn’t give the book justice (Sometimes, it does happen–The Natural with Robert Redford is better on the big screen. To this day, I still hate the book). I don’t throw the king title out lightly. I love the crime fiction genre and there has been some great reads through the years. Michael Connolly’s masterpiece The Poet also ranks up there as one of the best. If you haven’t read Mystic River and The Poet, stop reading this and start now. Live By Night is a great read but it doesn’t stand up to either of these works.
Lehane’s latest follows the bootleggers during the twenties. In this day and age, it’s hard to understand what the impact of Prohibition had on society. A market exists for all things. Pawn Starts and Storage Wars serve as examples. It’s amazing how Dave Hester in Storage Wars has replaced Indiana Jones. Ark of the Covenant? No big deal. We just scored ten vending machines in a locker that are worth eight hundred bucks each.
People like alcohol and this book explores the relationship of organized crime and pushing a product. The story revolves around Joe Coughlin, a small time crook. Of course, his father is also a renowned, no B.S. Cop. We watch as Joe falls in love, gets caught up in a bank job gone wrong, and inevitably gets sent to state prison. While serving time, he fights to stay alive until a crime boss still running his syndicate behind bars takes him under his wing. This is only done to extort Joe’s father. Eventually, Joe gets out of prison and has become a bigger fish than when he went in. The crime boss he befriends sends him to Tampa to get that operation under control. Yes, it’s like Joe was sent to get a poor running McDonalds back in line. Even crime bosses need middle management. While running the operation, Joe becomes everything his father feared as he takes over all aspects of rum distribution throughout the state.
I can’t give this book enough praise. It’s believable. And it’s long. The book is almost four novels–Joe the small time crook, Joe survives prison, Joe becomes Tampa crime boss, and the life after. But don’t let that scare you off. It’s good and moves quick. And even though Joe isn’t in the most honorable line of work, I couldn’t help but root for the guy. As the book lays out the politics of prohibition, it does a nice job of blurring the line of what is good and what is bad. It glorifies Joe’s profession but also makes you ponder the question, What does it take to be powerful? Joe makes choices, few of them good, but you can’t help but wonder how you would respond in the same situation. And with all businesses, success comes and go. After all, prohibition was eventually repealed, which changes the business climate. Government can ruin a good thing. What happens next? That’s where the book starts to drive to diversification. If you are in the business of vices, you have to look for another. It’s interesting how this plays out, how politicians react, and what ultimately happens. I won’t give it away and I encourage everyone to take a look at this book–but only if you have already finished Mystic River. Live by Night is a great read.